Ky. Voices: Time to invest in improving, regulating D-graded dams

Lori Spragens is the executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, based in Lexington.
Lori Spragens is the executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials, based in Lexington.

From state and national policymakers to dam owners, to those who live and work near our state's nearly 1,000 state-regulated dams, we all have a role to play in ensuring that our nation's dams are safe.

Unfortunately, too many of us have adopted an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to dams and other aspects of American civil infrastructure in dire need of rehabilitation.

Now Congress has a chance to act.

Potholes and backups caused by water main breaks can be aggravating. A bridge failure can be deadly, as we learned in Minneapolis in 2007 and in the last few weeks. But history shows that no infrastructure failure can be as devastating as a dam failure. May 31 marked the 124th anniversary of the Johnstown, Pa., dam failure.

When the South Fork Dam suffered a catastrophic failure as a result of heavy rainfall and flooding, coupled with poor design and maintenance, more than 2,000 people were killed.

Since then, hundreds of dams have failed in the United States causing, collectively, billions of dollars in property and environmental damage and killing thousands.

Kentucky has five full-time employees to oversee our 967 state-regulated dams. That's nearly 200 dams per employee.

So far, their hard work and good fortune have prevented a failure in Kentucky, but a truly reliable regulatory program requires greater resources.

Also, most other states have legislative authority to require dam owners to create emergency action plans — evacuation plans for downstream communities that guide dam owners and first responders when a dam is showing signs of failure.

Kentucky does not have such a law in place.

In March, the American Society of Civil Engineers released its 2013 Report Card for America's Infrastructure. The Association for State Dam Safety Officials provided data for the report, which supported ASCE's grade of D for dams, slightly lower than the country's overall grade of D-plus.

Of the 11,000 state-regulated "high-hazard potential" dams in the United States, 2,000 require immediate rehabilitation or risk failure. Kentucky's overall infrastructure in the 2009 state infrastructure report card received a C, but its dams system received the same D grade as the rest of the country.

If one of my children were to bring home a "D" from school that would be unacceptable. Why, then, are we allowing one of the key aspects of American infrastructure to skate by on a nearly failing grade?

Tens of millions of Americans live near the country's more than 84,000 dams, which provide recreation, water, electricity, flood control, transportation and other benefits.

Now, Congress has the chance to reauthorize the Water Resources Development Act, or WRDA. Part of this legislation is the reauthorization of the National Dam Safety Program and the creation of a new National Levee Safety Program.

These programs improve public safety and our precious dam and levee infrastructure. By having these programs in place, our federal government mitigates failures and saves us all money by reducing emergency relief appropriations.

Congress should approve WRDA without hesitation. The bill has already passed the Senate. Now Kentucky Reps. Ed Whitfield, Brett Guthrie, John Yarmuth, Thomas Massie, Hal Rogers and Andy Barr should recognize the importance of this legislation for their constituents and express their support on the House floor.

The increase in unpredictable weather incidents, coupled with the aging of many of our dams and levees, makes rehabilitation and proper safety regulation more urgent than ever.

Failing to act tempts fateand opens the door to a future where our dams fail us because we failed them.